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Fall Boating on the Chicago and Illinois River

Guest Contributor


Every fall, there is a slow dance of boats in the Midwest which get pulled before winter hits. Usually in October, the marinas start to empty out and the storage yards start filling up. I recently had the privilege to captain one of four boats heading from Downtown Chicago to Senica for their winter hibernation. We had a 64' Sun Seeker, a 55' Sea Ray, and two 38' Four Winns that were heading south together. Here are a few tips if you would like to had an adventure life we did....


1. Plan your route and call ahead. There are several locks and dams, train lift bridges and draw bridges which you will need to deal with. If your boat is more than 10' tall, you will need to call and get the bridges opened. As a pilot, I would always research the different airports I would be flying to and their radio channels and field operations. The same is true with a trip on the Illinois River. I wrote down the telephone number to the Amtrak lift bridge on the South Branch of the Chicago River. I also made note of the different bridge clearances through Joliet and their contact info, as we needed a minimum of 23'. 


2. Go with enough fuel! There are not very many fuel docks on the south branch of the Chicago River or the northern part of the Illinois River. That's ironic, as you will be passing petroleum barges, refineries, and storage areas. We topped-off all of our tanks the day before the trip to be safe.


3. Do not be in a rush. A recreational vessel has the lowest priority on the river for the locks, so it is easy to have delays lasting hours. Know where you can go faster and where you need to be very careful. Weekends do not always mean low commercial boat traffic. Leave at first light and plan to be late. 


4. Know your destination, dock / slip number, and power service well before you leave. Download a map of the marina. Also, know what marinas are along the way in case of a mechanical issue. Remember to bring a small tool bag just-in-case.   


5. VHF radio is a must. Operating a VHF marine radio can be intimidating, as everyone (including your passengers) will hear your "traffic." Make a cheat sheet at the help. "Bridge XXXX, this is recreational vessel Sea Ray L550, southbound Illinois River at the XXX mile marker, requesting an opening to accommodate a height of 23 feet at your earliest convenience."  Or "Motor barge XXXXX, this is recreational vessel Sea Ray L550, southbound Illinois River at the XXX mile marker, requesting to pass your vessel on the port side when clear." Be professional and polite on the radio. Coast Guard and almost all boats monitor VHF-16. Bridges and locks mostly use VHF-14. Ship to ship communication on the river is on VFH-13. It is very important that you understand your location on the river, because other commercial ships will call you and let you know their intentions.


6. Use a good GPS system. You need to know where the channel is, and where the bridges and other obstacles are. Redundancy saves lives (and money). Have a back-up GPS app on your phone in case something goofy happens.    

Run South.jpg

7. Fenders? Take the number of fenders you think you will need, and basically multiply that by a minimum of 2. Both tube and ball fenders are needed. You will have both port and starboard "bollards" in the locks. Your boat will be tied to a steel or concrete wall, so spend the money on good fenders. 

Barge 2.jpg

8. Assign duties. If you are going as a flotilla, the first boat should have the least draft. They are in charge of "sounding" the channel and watching out for logs and other obstacles. Older kids are decent at standing watch on the bow. The river shoals shift with current, and the red / green channel markers can not always be trusted. This is why the lead boat should be the one that can run shallowest. The 2nd boat should be the communications platform. VHF radio calls are needed to pass any commercial vessel, request a bridge lift, etc. The radio operator should also listen for any "security calls" about barges and tankers departing their docks, or other known hazards to navigation. The third boat needs to be the navigation boat. Using a large chart plotter, keep the lead boat going in the proper direction. The last boat in the flotilla needs to keep an eye out for rear obstacles, such as a go-fast bass boat passing the group. Rotate after locks or bridges so everyone can get practice in the different positions.       


9. Have fun. You are boating, and boating is fun. There is so much to see and take-in along the river. Maybe go when the trees are changing color and the river has that crisp hue of autumn. Look at how that little tug is pushing 400' of barges. Make food along the way and enjoy the last few hours of boating for the season.   And look at the flood markers on the bridges.... WOW...  

High Water MArk.jpg

Be Safe....It is just another day closer to spring! 


Team Ripl
Team Ripl

Love boating on the Chicago River in the fall! Thank for sharing all these insider tips!